Wednesday, 15 January 2014

"Voltigeurs of the Garde... earned for themselves a name worthy to be classed with the Old Garde of Napoleon I"

Attaques des Ouvrages du 22e Mai

General Canrobert was replaced as French General-in-Chief by General Pelissier on 19th May 1855, and he brought with him a new energy to the French army. Whilst the ordinary French soldier believed Canrobert had been the right man at the right time during the winter of 1854-1855 (Pelissier was known not to care what the causality list was so long as the job got done), the morale of the French army had plummeted in spring 1855 when the campaign season had not opened with a grand attack. Despite this, Canrobert remained highly popular with the troops, so much so that in Summer 1855 Pelissier packed him off back to France following the disaster of 18th June the blame for which most French soldiers put on Pelissier claiming that Canrobert would never have ordered such an attack.

 The first display of Pelissier’s energy and determination as General-in-Chief was to order an attack against Russian rifle pits opposite the Quarantine Redoubt on 21st May, when Guard was next engaged. The attacking force was organised as follows:

Left Attack, General Beuret:
10th Battalion Chasseurs à Pied (3 companies)
2nd Foreign Legion Regiment (3 battalions)
98th Line (1 battalion)

Right Attack, General La Motte Rouge:
1st Voltigeurs (2 battalions)
1st Foreign Legion Regiment (2 companies)
18th Line (1 battalion)
28th Line (2 battalions)

Reserve, General Pate:
2nd Voltigeurs (2 battalions)
80th Line (1 battalion)
9th Battalion Chasseurs à Pied


One anonymous officer of the Voltigeurs left this acccount of the 'Affaire du 22e Mai' 

"At eight o’clock in the evening, on the 22 May, all the dispositions had been made, and the troops posted in the trenches, waiting for the signal to attack; they would be lead by the General Patté, assisted by the Generals La Motterouge and Beuret. For us, who were waiting, this night was to be fixed eternally in our memoirs. Until the time fixed for the attack, only the artillery was to be heard. Gradually came a few bursts of gun-fire whose light is stretched out moments by moment like wildfire that follows gun powder. Soon the noise increases; [the] shooting is sharp, strong on all points. The cannon roars incessantly, and it seems that his repeated boomings announce the approach of invisible angel, spreading his already expansive wings; in the night [in which all] these men will die. Gradually the funeral noise slows by degrees, but soon to be heard more heartbreaking and more terrible: the silence.
These are the notes [which] vibrate on the heart in these harrowing minutes. We would fly into danger, brave oneself this terrible death rather than remain the motionless spectator of heroism. The love of glory, fighting fever I call you, you chained us.
Finally, after long hours of waiting, the air is calm, the noise stops, the soul listening a whole. An end we hope, we breathe, and then, with much anxiety, every detail that arrives is collected.
Often it is just a word thrown into the air at a galloping horse as it passes, and this word is enough to make you be born into a whole world of expectancies or to dig an abyss of sadness. Then, after the fact, after the party whose glory is at stake, men whose lives are in peril: they have escaped? Are they dead or just wounded? Or are they? What did they do, that they still do? It includes questions without number that succeed each other without truce, without respite, when one considers that these terrible moments, each without respite, when one considers that these terrible moments, every gesture, every step our friends, distant or close to death.
What was going on during that time? At the agreed signal, the columns of attack began attacking and, in less than a quarter of an hour, these brave troops were decimated by a terrible fire. They called for the reserves to come their aid, [and] the Voltigeurs appeared. But the Russians, who were in large numbers in a ravine located behind the entrenchment, also brought up reinforcements. Ours were welcomed by the most murderous fire. The crackling of the shooting, the whistling of bullets, the shells exploding, and dominating all, the cry of “en avant!” given by heroic leaders, which the Russians responded with savage cheers. What a spectacle! What a stage for these men the sent thus, in their first action, in the middle of the night, in this storm of fire and iron!
Soon, the third column itself, which would seem that in the event of failure, received orders to stand , at a run across the fields and on the place of action. He took about twenty minutes to arrive at the entrance of the cemetery. There, after a slight time to stop, the head of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Voltigeurs is directed in the fourth parallel, facing the front of the place d’armes. The order is given to men to cross the earthwork, and as they leave, they did so flat on their stomach. They crawled under a sheet of grape-shot, and reach the foot of the slope of the work without a shot being fired. They half rise, steeling in, cross the Russian bayonets, [with] helping hands, shoulders, they jettison the gabions into the interior of the work, so turning it against the defender. They make some breeches [in the trench] and passing through, driven by a young officer, M. Boscary,[1] they penetrate, in the darkness, in the middle of the most appalling fracas, while the air and land are seemingly all churned up. They are committed, furious and fierce, fighting man to man. The Russians ceded to our irresistible momentum they sought to move away, but reinforced by the flood of reinforcements arriving, they are closely packed, and forming in a circle in front of these breeches, they oppose [us with a] heroic resistance. Three times, like the ebb and flow of the sea, the Voltigeurs of the Guard are repulsed, and three times they return to the charge, and finally entered with fury into the entrenchment. The Russians cede ground, disorganised, moving away. They were defeated.
But not all is finished. Soon, we are forced to abandon the place. The fire of artillery is decimating us, and it forces us to leave the dearly-faught ground...."

[1] Probably Sous-Lieutenant Ernest-Marie-Frédéric Boscary, 2nd Voltigeurs who was wounded in the attack. Award the Legion d’Honneur 1 June 1855. He had served in the army for seven years and fought in three campaigns


The 1st and 2nd Voltigeurs were brought forward in an act of desperate defiance. The four battalions commanded by Colonel de Marolles and Lieutenant-Colonels Douay and Mongin advanced against the Russian Minsk and Ouglitz Regiments. The Voltigeurs stood their ground against superior Russian numbers, giving time for the other French troops to reorganise and withdraw. Commandant Anthès (1st Voltigeurs) was killed and succeeded by Capitaine Boulatigny who lost an arm; Captain Genty was gravely wounded, as were three other officers. In total some 20 officers from 1st and 2nd Voltigeurs were dead or wounded and 28 crosses of the Legion d’Honneur were awarded to both regiments. 43 voltigeurs were killed; 247 wounded and 96 "disappeared".

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